Afghanistan’s female students voice devastation after being banned from universities

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Kabul, Afghanistan

The 21-year-old student had been studying hard for weeks as she prepared for the final exams of her first year of university. She was almost done, with just two exams left, when she heard the news: the Taliban government was suspending university education for all female students in Afghanistan.

“I did not stop and kept studying for the exam,” she told CNN on Wednesday. “I went to the university in the morning anyway.”

But it was no use. She arrived to find armed Taliban guards at the gates of her campus in Kabul, the Afghan capital, turning away every female student who tried to enter.

“It was a terrible scene,” she said. “Most of the girls, including myself, were crying and asking them to let us go in … If you lose all your rights and you can’t do anything about it, how would you feel?”

CNN is not naming the student for safety reasons.

The Taliban’s decision on Tuesday was just the latest step in its brutal crackdown on the freedoms of Afghan women, following its takeover of the country in August 2021.

Though the insurgent group has repeatedly claimed that it would protect the rights of girls and women, it has in fact done the opposite, stripping away the hard-won freedoms they have fought tirelessly for over the last two decades.

Some of its most striking restrictions have been around education, with girls barred from returning to secondary schools in March. The move devastated many students and their families, who described to CNN their dashed dreams of becoming doctors, teachers or engineers.

To the Kabul student, the loss of her education was an even bigger shock than the bomb attacks and violence she has previously witnessed.

“I always thought that we could overcome our sorrow and fear by getting educated,” she said. “However, this (time) is different. It is just unacceptable and unbelievable.”

Male students attend a class behind a curtain meant to separate men from women at a university in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, on December 21, 2022.

The news was met with widespread condemnation and dismay, with many world leaders – and prominent Afghan figures – urging the Taliban to reverse its decision.

In a statement on Twitter, former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani – who fled Kabul when the Taliban seized power – called the group illegitimate rulers holding “the entire population hostage.”

“The current problem of women’s education and work in the country is very serious, sad, and the most obvious and cruel example of gender apartheid in the 21st century,” Ghani wrote. “I have said it again and again that if one girl becomes literate, she changes five future generations, and if one girl remains illiterate, she causes the destruction of five future generations.”

He praised those in Afghanistan protesting the Taliban’s decision, calling them “pioneers.”

Another former Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, also expressed “deep regret” over the suspension. The country’s “development, population, and self-sufficiency depend on the education and training of every child, girl, and boy of this land,” he wrote.

Other foreign officials and leaders issued similar statements, including the British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, US State Department spokesperson Ned Price, and US Ambassador to Afghanistan Karen Decker.

The foreign ministries of France, Germany, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia criticized the decision as well.

“Preventing half of the population from contributing meaningfully to society and the economy will have a devastating impact on the whole country,” said the UN mission in Afghanistan in a statement.

“Education is a basic human right,” it added. “Excluding women and girls from secondary and tertiary education not only denies them this right, it denies Afghan society as a whole the benefit of the contributions that women and girls have to offer. It denies all of Afghanistan a future.

Female students in Afghanistan say their futures now lie in limbo, with no clarity on what will become of their education.

“I am still hopeful that things would get back to normal, but I don’t know how long it will take,” said the Kabul student. “Now many girls, including me, are just thinking (about) what is next, what can we do to get out of this situation.”

“I am not quitting,” she added, saying she would consider going “somewhere else” if Afghanistan continued banning female students.

Another 21-year-old, Maryam, is intimately familiar with the dangers of pursuing education as a woman. As a high school student, she’d been in the vicinity of an attack on Kabul University several years ago, and remembers being evacuated “while bullets were flying over our heads.”

Then in September, she barely survived a suicide attack at the Kaaj education center in Kabul, which killed at least 25 people, most of whom are believed to be young women. The attack sparked public outrage and horror, with dozens of women taking to the streets of Kabul afterward in protest.

Maryam, who is being identified by one name for her security, missed the blast by just seconds. When she ran back into her classroom, she was met with the scattered bodies of her friends.

Each brush with death cemented her determination not only to pursue her own ambitions – but the “dreams of all those best friends of mine who died before my eyes,” she said.

Though she was accepted into a bachelors program weeks after the September bombing, she decided to defer her university plans for a year, instead returning to rebuild the destroyed education center from scratch. She wanted to encourage other girls to continue their educations, she said.

Taliban security personnel stand guard at the entrance gate of a university in Jalalabad on December 21, 2022.

Now, those dreams have been shattered by Tuesday’s announcement.

“I am just lost. I don’t know what to do and what to say,” she told CNN. “Since last night, I have been imagining every friend of mine who lost their lives in the Kaaj attack. What was their sacrifice for?”

“We need to get education; we have given a lot of sacrifice for it. It is our only hope for a better future.”

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